A Terrifying Clown Once Took Over People's Avatars In The Early Days Of The Internet

An avatar is a virtual representation of a person, so what happens when an avatar is virtually assaulted or commits crimes against other avatars? It's not a hypothetical question, as a ruthless internet crime demonstrates: the LambdaMOO cybercrime case of 1993. In the early days of the internet, a LambdaMOO virtual universe player named Mr. Bungle hacked other players' avatars and forced them to do terrible things.

The term MUD, which stands for multi-user dimension (or formerly, multi-user dungeon), refers to online multiplayer communities of people who chat with each other and role-play through a text-based platform. A site called The Mud Connector shows all the MUD platforms and text games currently available. LambdaMOO, a MUD community that emerged in the mid-1980s and expanded over the following decade, has been described as "a mystical mansion layered with bedrooms, cafes, and even an underground mall... built entirely in script."

Though no one died as a result of Mr. Bungle's crime, the case was part of an ugly phenomenon: crimes committed in MUDs. It led to in-depth discussions about morality, ethics, and safety in the virtual world.

  • LambdaMOO Is One Of The Most Popular MUDs

    Created by Pavel Curtis (a programmer who now runs Pavel's Puzzles), with a setting based on his home, LambdaMOO is one of the most popular MUDs. Nowadays, the reason most people know about it is because of an infamous cybercrime case involving a user named Mr. Bungle.

    Village Voice writer Julian Dibbell, who researched the Mr. Bungle case extensively, joined the LambdaMOO community and described it as "a very large and very busy rustic mansion built entirely of words."

    To participate, users type words onto the screen and virtually drop into different scenarios and environments, all through lines of text. They can explore the whole place and chat with each other, and the interactive element attracts users to come back for more.

  • Mr. Bungle's LambdaMOO Avatar Was A Terrifying Clown

    According to journalist Julian Dibbell, Mr. Bungle presented himself as "a fat, oleaginous, Bisquick-faced clown dressed in c*m-stained harlequin garb and girdled with a mistletoe-and-hemlock belt whose buckle bore the quaint description 'KISS ME UNDER THIS, B*TCH!'"

    The facts of the case are equally disturbing, Dibbell claimed, because the attacks were entirely unprovoked. Suddenly, Mr. Bungle's character was committing graphic acts. And because it all took place in a virtual world, no one was sure how to react.

  • He Forced Avatars To Perform Explicit Acts On Him And Themselves

    According to Julian Dibbell in the Village Voice, the user behind Mr. Bungle forced a user named legba - "a Haitian trickster spirit of indeterminable gender, brown-skinned and wearing an expensive pearl gray suit, top hat and dark glasses" - to perform intimate acts on him. This all happened in the middle of a virtual living room in full view of other players.

    Mr. Bungle then forced a female avatar named Starsinger to violate herself with a steak knife while he laughed nearby. He also made Starsinger perform physical acts with other characters in the room.

    For users, avatar characters are not trivial things; they are customized by and act as virtual representations of real people. So while this happened in an online universe, the attacks were deeply hurtful to real players. But when they evicted Mr. Bungle from the room, he continued committing egregious behaviors elsewhere.

  • Mr. Bungle Used A Program Called A 'Voodoo Doll' To Hack Avatars

    Before this cyber attack occurred, Mr. Bungle had been a regular player. He then decided to use a program called a voodoo doll to hack his fellow users in the LambdaMOO community and command their avatar characters to abuse each other. According to Julian Dibbell, the program allowed users "to [attribute] actions to other characters that their users did not actually write."

    Mr. Bungle made users do things that were not permissible in the game setting - things that carry severe consequences in real life.

  • The Real-Life Mr. Bungle Was Likely A College Student

    When Mr. Bungle committed his cybercrimes, everybody had the same question: Who was the real person behind the character? According to Julian Dibbell, Mr. Bungle was a young man who logged into the MOO community from a New York University computer.

  • Mr. Bungle Gave An Explanation For His Actions

    After the online assaults, other LambdaMOO users wanted to know what was going on in the mind of Mr. Bungle. When they asked during an online meeting attending by 30 users and Mr. Bungle himself, he gave them an explanation:

    I engaged in a bit of a psychological device that is called thought-polarization: the fact that this is not RL simply added to heighten the affect of the device. It was purely a sequence of events with no consequence on my RL existence.